My friend Sharron invited me to attend a public forum last week to learn more about the The Child Poverty Collaborative. The group aims to reduce child poverty in the Cincinnati region for 10,000 kids and 5,000 families–within the next five years.
I was rather surprised to find the United Way of Greater Cincinnati parking lot packed when I arrived. And I mean really, really packed….including side streets, “not really” parking places, and some pretty imaginative solutions!
The meeting room was also full in the best meaning of the word. Full of diversity, full of all ages, full of smiles and humor, full of people who knew and liked one another and embraced warmly. This was community! No strangers here, not even me with my “I don’t know anyone” face on. My neighbor next to me introduced herself and started to talk about work she is doing with low-income at-risk high schoolers to help them succeed in high school and college by assisting them in overcoming barriers. She spoke about the wins–nearly 60 kids each year being helped–and the losses.
“I had this one young woman. Oh, so much potential, so eager to learn and to grow and to contribute. Then she just stopped coming to school. No word, no reason, and no way to get in touch with her. We asked other students about her and finally we got a work address. So, I went there and found her. She is working full time now. With her Mom disabled and no other support or income in their home, her Mom begged her to quit school and go to work. Of course, she was only sixteen so she had fake ID. Her employer had no idea she wasn’t 18. And no matter that she was clearly torn–she just wasn’t going to go back to school, not when her Mom needed her help. It was heartbreaking.”
A room full of these passionate and committed people. Can you imagine?
Impacting something as insidious, continuous and ugly as childhood poverty doesn’t just take heart. Anyone tackling the wicked problems in our society knows the balancing act we have to do to create a framework for change. Bring together key stakeholders. Build consensus. Identify the behaviors we are trying to change, the determinants of those behaviors, the goals we want to set, and the interventions–evidence-based practices–that will achieve those goals.
No indeed. This was taking a combination of organization, keen intellect, shared leadership–and a dose of raw courage.
The statistics we face here are daunting. 70% of African American kids in Cincinnati live in poverty. Looking more broadly, one third of the children in Hamilton County live in poverty as well.
The work is being facilitated by United Way of Greater Cincinnati, and led by two extraordinary women: Lynn Marmer, a recently retired executive from the Kroger Company, and Donna Jones Baker, President and CEO of the Urban League of Southwestern Ohio.
Planning for this work started in 2015 but is being built on earlier efforts. And in their first week of fundraising they raised one million dollars.
And if their efforts to get going on “doing SOMETHING” are a bit slower than what they would like, they can certainly be excused.
“We are not going to plug solutions into an action plan and then say ‘go forth and do this'” Marmer said. “We will provide a model with recommendations, implement, evaluate and tweak as we need to. This will be an iterative process. And we will be looking at the outcomes of the actions we take to hold us all accountable to our goals.”
The Forum today was focused on learning from Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution. He looked at national determinants of childhood poverty and their increasing impact over several decades. This included a marked decline in marriage and concomitant increase in single family households. Low employment rates for African American men in their twenties. The strong correlation between highest level of education achieved and future earnings.
The Brookings Institution is encouraging four interventions:
- Promoting marriage as the most reliable route to stable families;
- Promoting delayed, responsible childbearing;
- Addressing social capacity for family stability, such as teaching parenting skills;
- Promoting that skill development and capacity among young men as well as young women.
These were presented as suggestions. Each community needs to discover and validate not only which social determinants are at work locally, but also which solutions and ideas have the highest likelihood of success. If the logic models and collaborative approach is the science of social change, this is the art.
So–heart, intellect, working hands and feet, creativity, determination, all in one room. If there was strength in each individual present, there was an abundance of capacity in the collective.
I will watch and talk about this group again. But you know–I believe I am going to place my bets right now.